3 May 2003

The cool hunter

Interviewing William Gibson

For a long time William Gibson has threatened to become respectable; now he might have done it. His new novel, Pattern Recognition, hit number four on the New York Times bestseller list shortly after its US publication in January. The Washington Post called it “assuredly one of the first authentic and vital novels of the 21st century”; the Chicago Tribune acclaimed “a masterful performance from a major novelist who seems to be hitting his peak”.

Yet fans of the early Gibson may be mystified to discover that it features no imaginary futuristic technologies or hallucinogenic descriptive passages about cyberspace — a word he invented in 1982. Gibson was the progenitor of what became known as “cyberpunk” — a mode of dystopian and technologically visionary science fiction whose brightest flowering was his own first novel, Neuromancer. What seemed mere pulp SF to some critics at the time quickly attained a sophisticated glamour to which even the academy was not immune. Literary theorists such as Frederic Jameson compared his work to that of Thomas Pynchon (whom Gibson has named his “mythic hero”), as constituting the authentic literature of the postmodern condition.

Pattern Recognition, a chilled-out meditation on marketing and the otaku instinct (named after the Japanese word for obsessive collector), as well as a detective story about an inexplicably haunting, numinous piece of film that is released in chunks over the internet, marks the culmination of a process in Gibson’s novels whereby the future has come ever closer. Set mostly in London in the summer of 2002, it necessitated a change of style, he explains in his charming sing-song southern drawl one rain-sodden Vancouver afternoon.

“I ruled out jump-cuts, or whatever that’s called in prose fiction,” he explains. “It’s a type of Dogme novel – you wake up with her [Cayce]; the chapters are more or less one take. And if it’s broken then there’s some structural reason for that. Once I started working that way, I realised I had no sense of timing,” he laughs. “My sense of where the chapter ended somehow relied on how many jump-cuts or how many camera angles I’d featured, so it was scary … Approaching the vehicle every day, I was never really sure that the audience were going to go along with it.”

But they have, in considerable numbers. And he is pleased to report that on a recent American publicity tour “the frequency of the word ‘cyberpunk’ dropped dramatically. It may be that because ‘punk’ is wearing out faster as a signifier than ‘cyber’ people just don’t want to get their lips around that word any more”.

Gibson was born in 1948 in South Carolina, and for the first six years of his life his family lived like nomads, following the construction projects his father managed. “It was a world of early television, a new Oldsmobile with crazy rocket-ship styling, toys with science fiction themes,” he has written in an autobiographical essay. When Gibson was six, his father died, and he and his mother moved back to his parents’ home town in southwestern Virginia. “The trauma of my father’s death aside, I’m convinced that it was this experience of feeling abruptly exiled, to what seemed like the past, that began my relationship with science fiction.”

Gibson says now that he probably wanted to be a science-fiction writer “when I was 14″. Beyond the conservative visions of sci-fi novelists such as Robert A Heinlein, the teenager was discovering a more left-wing strand of allegorical and satirical pulp writing. “Science fiction was one of those places, particularly during the McCarthy era, where you could write whatever you wanted, because it was beneath contempt,” he says. “They didn’t bother censoring it.” But the ambition to do it himself was forgotten almost immediately. “By the time I was 15,” Gibson says, “if I’d thought of it at all I would have thought it was the most ludicrous of ambitions. Puberty had arrived, and I didn’t really think about being a writer for about a decade after that.” Instead, the teenage Gibson had discovered Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg. Then his mother died, and he ended up leaving high school without graduating after a contretemps with the authorities. “They saw me reading Kerouac and suspected me of smoking pot,” he explains, “and I think I was desperately trying to smoke pot but hadn’t found any. I took it as a golden opportunity to split.”

What led him to split further than he had planned was his experience shortly after with the Vietnam draft board, where the first phase involved a physical examination and a psychological questionnaire. “I answered these questions all very, very frankly,” Gibson chuckles. “I think I was the first kid they had ever seen in that remote part of southwestern Virginia who answered those questions in the way I did. So they scratched their heads and said ‘Come back in three months – think about it’. So during those three months I made up my mind to absent myself from the process, got on a bus, went to Toronto and stayed.” He was never drafted.

Mooching around in the hippie counterculture of Toronto, Gibson in his early 20s harboured ambitions to be some sort of artist. “I had this whole vague, vague thing going on,” he says. “I was briefly and pointlessly an art student,” and he thought he might be a painter or a filmmaker. “But I never did anything, never produced any work.” He married Deborah Jean Thompson, who was working at the art college, and they moved to her home town of Vancouver, where they still live. He enrolled to do a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of British Columbia, taking advantage of free tuition for students who maintained a high grade-point average.

“By the time I was three years into it,” Gibson remembers, “I realised it would be over soon and I would have to get some sort of job, which didn’t seem like a pleasant proposition at all. Whatever vague sense I had that I was an ‘artiste’ of some kind and should be paid for being clever and imaginative, that looked as though it wasn’t going to happen.” He was 25, and he and his wife had their first child. It was this, in a pleasant reversal of Cyril Connolly’s admonitions against the pram in the hall, that made him a writer. “I was home taking care of the baby, while my wife was doing a master’s degree in teaching. I couldn’t leave the house, so I was kind of trapped, it seemed to me, in a situation where all I could do was write. It was a matter of options narrowing down to the typewriter. The baby would be asleep and I would go and write fiction.”

His early stories were instantly successful. “Almost as soon as I’d started, it started to work,” he remembers. “I wrote and I sold. By the time I’d sold two or three stories, I was earning enough money that I couldn’t actually afford to stop because I had no other income. And that turned into Neuromancer, so it really seamlessly segued into what I’ve done for the past 27 years.”

“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel” – the celebrated first sentence of Neuromancer, published in the Orwellian year of 1984, encapsulates a tonality and attitude central to what became labelled as cyberpunk: a snappiness born of weary, hip cynicism; and a cute metaphorical reversal: technology is used to explain the natural world, rather than the other way around. The story is set in an unspecified future, when the American west coast cities have conglomerated into an enormous megatropolis called “the Sprawl”, and Chiba City outside Tokyo has become the centre of a black market in neural modifications and other hi-tech contraband. The novel centres on Case, a leather-jacketed hacker who “jacks in” to computer terminals through a socket in his head. He is commissioned, with Molly, a “razorgirl” with surgically implanted mirror shades, to attempt a dangerous hacking run, which has something to do with two mysterious artificial-intelligence personalities.

Basically, this is a violent, noir, detective story in diamond-edged, verb-light prose – Gibson is a great admirer of Dashiel Hammett, though not of Raymond Chandler. The doomed love affair and mystery quest arc of the plot make clear that the novel is just as much “new-romancer” as it is the cognitive conjuring of “neuro-mancer”. As “future crime” novelist Jon Courtenay Grimwood has written about the cyberpunk genre: “The central perspective, the self-destructive irony and flawed sense of honour have become as much a convention as heroism, unrequited love and courtly lore ever were to Malory’s Morte D’Arthur and its horde of imitators.”

Gibson went to see Blade Runner (1982) while he was writing the novel, and staggered out of the cinema thinking someone had beaten him to his vision. But he then realised that what Ridley Scott had not presented on screen was the internalisation of cyberspace. And it was this subjective experience that was to become Gibson’s most famous and influential narrative vision. “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts … A graphical representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding …”

The invention of the worldwide web was still a decade away, but already, in the story “Burning Chrome” (1982) and Neuromancer, Gibson was creating concepts and terms for an imaginary digital territory that would prove to have enormous staying power. “The Matrix” was the totality of interconnected computer systems; “cyberspace” was the subjective experience of graphical representations of data; and there is even talk of a “virus program”, contemporaneous with the first coinage of the phrase “computer virus” by a researcher at the University of Southern California.

Legend has it that Gibson was inspired to create cyberspace by early arcade games, but he explains that it wasn’t the stuff on the screen he was interested in but the people looking at it. “I wasn’t as taken by the graphic content of the early arcade games as I was by the posture of the kids playing the games,” he says. “It was so evident that they wanted to get through the screen: you could see them yearning for some kind of surround, and doing everything they could to just be there.”

But cyberspace also served a very specific narrative function for the author. Science fiction previously had been largely about exploring other physical worlds, but Gibson felt he couldn’t use this paradigm. “I had just started trying to write stories which I knew I could probably best market as science-fiction, and I knew that space travel wasn’t going to work for me,” he says. “All the SF I had grown up with had depended on a symbol set drawn from space travel, and in that symbol set you had the rocketship, and the rocketship moved the story, and took you where you wanted to go, and to some extent allowed you to write psychedelic prose passages. The rocketship was your key to the exotic.” Gibson needed a similar key, but in a different shape.

He also wanted to disguise what he felt were his limitations as a writer. “When I started writing I had a problem of physically moving the characters around,” he confesses. “I could do Joe in his room, but getting Joe down the stairs, into the cab and on the plane to Chicago was too much. I think in the very first short story I wrote, I came up with the conceit of a character replaying recorded memories of an ex-girlfriend, and it was marvellous for me because he’d recorded these bits at random, and it was just like these total jump-cuts, and every time I hit a jump-cut the Ballardian ante on the affect went up, and I thought, ‘This is great, I can do the whole thing and he’s actually sitting at his desk!’

“When I got to ‘Burning Chrome’, which is the story that introduces the idea of cyberspace – I think it was the third or fourth story I’d attempted to write – for some reason I sat down and formalised it. By then I was able to make the characters walk around and interact in physical space, but I’d realised how useful it was to have that sort of imaginary technology and instant and ever-dramatic access to … the psychedelic, essentially. You know, the jack goes in the head and then you’re in thermal freefall.”

Gibson’s hopes for his first novel had ex-tended to “fantasies of minor but twitchily hip recognition in England or France” – he is something of an Anglophile, acknowledging that his favourite novelists of the past six years have been Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair. Instead, Neuromancer managed the un-precedented feat of winning all three major US sci-fi awards in one year, and it turned into a trilogy, with Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), whose title is an almost perfect summation of the novels’ aesthetic. Gibson became fêted as a kind of prophet, of what became internet culture. For a cadre of technophiles, he was for years simply the coolest man on the planet.

Naturally, Hollywood called. He was commissioned to write a script for Alien 3 which was never filmed, he was involved in making a film of his short story “Johnny Mnemonic”, which presciently starred Keanu Reeves but was apparently savagely recut by Sony before release, and he even co-scripted two episodes of The X-Files. With co-author Bruce Sterling, he wrote The Difference Engine (1991), about the computer age arriving in Victorian Britain, which was instantly labelled “steampunk”. In 1992, he published a poem called “Agrippa: A Book of the Dead” that was distributed on floppy disk, erasing itself while it was read. Ideas drawn directly from his early work continued to surface in the cinema, from eXistenZ and Strange Days to The Matrix.

Novelist James Flint recalls: “Reading Gibson in the early 1990s, you got a sense that you were glimpsing ‘the truth’ about where we were all headed; a few years later, when I was working at Wired and saw it all being played out pretty much as he’d described … well, that was pretty uncanny. Clearly he laid out some of the key cultural parameters for the so-called ‘information revolution’; for about five years I don’t think I met anyone who hadn’t read him, who didn’t use his work as a crucial touchstone.”

Though Gibson became a figurehead for people who wanted to preserve the anarchy of the early internet, cyberspace was never such a simply liberating place in his novels. In the Neuromancer trilogy it is dominated by the zaibatsus, huge multinational corporations of Japanese origin. The first time Case jacks in to cyberspace in Neuromancer, he sees this: “Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach.” If he’s very, very good, Case may be able to crack the “black ice” of software that protects certain data structures, but it is clear who owns this universe. By 2002, when China temporarily banned access to Google for fear its citizens might access unsanctioned information, it had become clear that Gibson’s vision was more accurate than that of the silicon idealists.

Gibson’s next three novels, Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1997) and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999), form a second trilogy set in a nearer future, with a more overt examination of the social implications of virtual reality, nanotechnology and other phenomena. Some fans of Gibson’s early work failed to be thrilled by these novels. James Flint says: “The Neuromancer trilogy was the masterwork, really, and after that his plots didn’t become complex enough or his characters deepen sufficiently to hold my interest.” But Jon Courtenay Grimwood finds the later Gibson an improvement. “I love the rawness of Gibson’s early Sprawl novels,” he says, “but the mature Gibson is a better writer and, no matter how hard it is for some of his fans to admit, he’s writing better books.”

As Gibson tells it, in his second trilogy he was looking at what the internet had become, so there was a kind of “cultural feedback”. In Idoru, for example, which centres on a rock star’s marriage to an entirely virtual Japanese celebrity, the Walled City of Kowloon has been completely razed by the Chinese, and recreated in cyberspace as a kind of oasis of political and creative freedom. “It never seemed to me during the actual development of net culture that there would be a great deal of room for people doing whatever they wanted, and that’s where the virtual Kowloon came from,” Gibson explains. “I’d always maintained that much of the anarchy and craziness of the early internet had a lot to do with the fact that governments just hadn’t realised it was there. It was like this territory came into being, and there were no railroads, there were no lawmen, and people were doing whatever they wanted, but I always took it for granted that the railroads would come and there would be law west of Dodge. As we move more and more of what we do into that non-physical realm, it all becomes terribly important to the people who write the cheques.”

Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore a strand of muted optimism in Gibson’s oeuvre; no matter how circumscribed the possibilities, there are always characters who manage to flout the rules, to use the corporate infrastructure for purposes of creative expression, from the disabled Mexican girl in Idoru who becomes the powerful “Zona Rosa” in cyberspace, to the mysterious artist in Pattern Recognition who releases excerpts of the film known only as “the Footage” on the internet. In Virtual Light, the San Francisco Bay Bridge has become a shanty town for thousands of homeless, and just as the angular spaces between its girders provide shelter, in Gibson’s fiction there are always tiny gaps in the power structures, interstitial places where human freedom can breathe.

Gibson’s fiction has always been concerned with the problem of how people make sense of a world that has been irreparably changed by new technology. What some critics deprecated as a pulpy, cartoonish approach to violence in Neuromancer, for instance, is part of how the novel attempts to mime the anaesthetising effect of electronic saturation on a human mind. The body becomes “meat”. Case’s feelings for Molly, his whole psychic existence outside cyberspace, become telescoped into the melancholic evocation, “All the meat, he thought, and all it wants.”

“What happens to those characters,” Gibson maintains, “illustrates the impact of technology on society, and I find myself thinking sometimes that there isn’t anything other than the impact of technology on society – possibly that has been more significant historically than any sort of political thought, in terms of bringing us to where we are now.”

Gibson chooses a contemporary example: his friend’s camera-phone. “I get these pictures every once in a while – no expla nation – and it’s just so cool, and it’s such an intimate thing. The view down an airport corridor, or something that struck him as funny.” But to every silver lining there is a cloud. “If that becomes very common,” he points out, “that’ll change the texture of life. You’d lose things. Someone telling you about their new girlfriend, for instance, and you don’t meet her for six months, so you have this picture in your head of her, and then you meet her … and that won’t be happening because he’ll have emailed the photograph right away. Apparently small things like that have a huge cumulative effect on how people experience reality.”

The micro-texture of experience in a digital world is Gibson’s consuming interest, as for example with the experience of watching Gulf War II as television entertainment. “Most often looking at that war,” he says, “I think of how familiar I seem to be with the texture of how we’re experiencing it. It’s almost a feeling of déjà vu, and I don’t know where that comes from because I don’t think I’ve ever spent much time thinking about what large-scale warfare would be like to experience through early 21st-century media. But I constantly have these moments of ‘Of course! Now that’s happening!’”

Gibson observes the world from his Vancouver arts-and-crafts house, “built by Field Marshal Montgomery’s heterosexual brother, Donald, a barrister,” he reveals. “Monty, as far as we know, never visited.” He and his wife also have an oceanfront cabin in Canada’s Gulf Islands, off the coast of British Columbia. It is a learned family: Deborah is working on a doctorate in linguistics, his son Graeme is a “keen amateur ethnomusicologist”, and his daughter Claire is an undergraduate. Gibson recalls telling her six months ago that he was going to start writing a weblog on his website: “She’s 20, and she reacted as though I had announced that I was taking up snowboarding,” he laughs. “It was like, ‘Dad, you can’t … We do that! You’re not supposed to do that.’”

He writes daily; “If possible, in a messy basement office at home”, and when he is not reading or writing his favourite recreation is to “see friends”. But the strange textures of modern life continue to exert a pull of fascination, a constant urge to recognise patterns. “I saw a page on the BBC website this morning,” he relates, “an account of American soldiers in one of the [Iraqi] presidential palaces, and it was the most Ballardian thing. The rooftop swimming pool had been bombed, and there were these huge bedrooms filled with extra-large imitation French furniture, and the scorched palm trees, and the American soldiers standing there – this is like a Ballard novel I’ve never read.”

Gibson, one could say, is an American Ballard, using the tropes of science fiction to satirical and productively alienating effect. Even though he does not really think of himself now as a “science-fiction writer”, he still thinks the genre is more necessary and potentially fruitful than ever. “There’s something so obvious that it seems almost silly to point it out,” he says, “but we’re living in a world that resembles nothing so much as dozens and dozens of overlapping, really lurid science-fiction scenarios. Any attempt at literary naturalism in 2003 will bring the author into direct contact with material that 20 years ago would have been barely publishable as science fiction. So where do you go for the biohazard suit to deal with that material? Go to genre SF, they’ve got the toolkit!”